tv Ali Velshi on Target Al Jazeera January 4, 2016 9:00pm-9:31pm EST
and on demand this friday. that's our broadcast. i'm john siegenthaler. i'll see you right back here tomorrow night. ali velshi, "on target" is next. ♪ >> i'm ali velshi. "on target" tonight. power struggle in the middle east. with america caught in the middle, an execution upsets delicate alliances, put be two rivals often a dangerous collision course. president obama's biggest diplomatic achievement of 2015, the iran nuclear accord could be in trouble. things boiled over this weekend when sunni dominated saudi arabia executed a prominent shia
muslim cleric, sheik nimr al-nimr. he used the pul pulpit to criti. protests in iran turned violent fire bombing the saudi embassy in tehran. saudi arabia responded by cutting diplomatic relations with iran, all travel trade and commercial relations. many saudi allies in the middle east have followed suit but unease that saudi arabia and its allies already feel over a newly ascendant iran. home of islam's holiest shrines but shia iran openly challenges that asen dance asen assen asse.
new sanctions on iran's missile program and separately, congress has voted to tighten visa restrictions on travelers to the united states who have been to iran. both have the iranians crying foul and warning that any new sanctions will put the nuclear accord in jeopardy and that is why the saudi-iranian power struggle is bound to drag the united states into the fray and there is a growing realization that last year's nuclear accord gives iran more space to project its power instead of curbing it. iran considers itself a superpower in the middle east. and it wants the world to give it the respect it thinks it deserves. and despite agreeing to curbs on its nuclear ambitions, iran's
regional influence is bound to grow as sanctions are lifted and its economic isolation ends. >> it's time for american leaders some european leaders to realize that iran is a major player, and it should just live with it, the same way they live with russia, the same way they live with china. why not live with iran? and if they decide to do that then they will encourage forces within iran that are willing and able to accommodate western interests. >> one thing that iran is eager to help the west with is confronting i.s.i.l. both iran and the u.s. back the iraqi government in the war against i.s.i.l. fighters. but in neighboring syria where i.s.i.l. also controls territory, iran and the u.s. work at cross-purposes. that's because they back opposing sides in syria's civil war. in fact, in almost every
contentious area and issue facing the middle east today, syria, israel, yemen, and the flow of oil to the world, iran and the u.s. are on opposite sides. nowhere is that more apparent than in the straight of hormuz, a narrow waterway that connects oil tanker traffic between the waters of the gulf and the indian ocean. at its narrowest point just 21 miles separates iran from the countries of the aarabian peninsula on the other side. let me give you a sense of how much a choke point it is. across the strait, there are nuclear facilities, iran considers that a threat and says it will mine this strait if it field a threat. it has done it before. doing it for other vessels too. besides military force iran has many ways of wielding power and
influence in the middle east. it also uses its soft power to win the hearts and minds of people living in the region. >> iran has a natural soft power in the hearts and minds of the shia populations in this part of the world an internationally. it is like the vatican for the catholics. >> iran uses both military and soft power to give back to shia parties in conflict zones throughout the middle east. in lebanon iran has long backed hezbollah in its fight against israel. the iranians have become a life line for syria's embattled president bashar al-assad. and they lend crucial political and military support to iraq's shia dominategovernment. mordominated government. triggering a sectarian proix war
there with sunni dominated saudi arabia. while u.s. may regulate thing middle east, in cooperation to solve about myriad problems consuming the middle east today. >> today iran has emerged as a major player. the islamic revolution has a lot of influence in many parts of the islamic world. there are a lot of different areas where iran can play a very promotprominent role in sortingt different conflicts, resolving outstanding issues, particularly dealing with peace and security in the region. >> the strait of hormuz where you just saw me reporting from last summer is always a major tension point between iran and the united states. we saw that again last week when the u.s. military accused iran gun boats of firing unguided rockets near u.s. navy vessels.
iran accused the u.s. of lying. add that to the growing list of tensions between iran and saudi arabia following executions and the fire-bombing and it all sounds pretty dangerous and unsettling. don't hit the panic button yet, that is the word from ramin ascard, who served as a diplomat in multiple posts across the middle east. he suggests that dialogue and nonviolence will be iran's response to saudi arabia. ramin, good to see you. just following on the story i told mtold my audience, what sof influence does iran have in the middle east? >> that's a terrific overview of a very complicated situation. iran's influence is the shia-led clerical regime, first shia led
clerical regime in modern times, it gives what in many countries a minority the sense that there's a country that looks after their interests. sometimes iran manipulates those interests, sometimes it looks after the security. so iran's influence is wielded in a number of ways, and one of them is through its shia religious identity. >> you know, the iranian government is really a theocracy, other than the vatican it's the only theocracy in the world and hence that's what it claims as its letting legitimacy. but it gets its power from the clergy. these two countries are battling to be the heart and soul of islam in the middle east. >> yes, absolutely. saudi arabia and iran both have various important roles for religion within their societies and a very large population of believers within each country that hold those values very dear.
when they come into conflict with each other it creates a very volatile situation, and that's what you're seeing unfold in the middle east as you reported. >> now, iran has, in the last several months, got more attention on the world stage than saudi arabia. you say that saudi arabia feels betrayed by the united states. tell me a little more about this. >> well, i think saudi arabia and the united states have had a very close relationship that survived a lot of ups and downs after world war ii. and saudi arabia an the royal family in saudi arabia have had a very close, continuing, ongoing, intimate relationship with the united states, where they talk through problems in private, and try to solve their issues before it becomes an international public concern. that level of intimate dialogue seems to have eroded in the eyes of the saudis, in the wake of
the gulf war, and the saudi-u.s. relationship has been strained ever since. and as the events unfold with the iran nuclear are agreement the saudis feel the united states is getting close to not just another country in the region but to a long time arch-enemy in the region and they feel they're left out in the cold a little bit. >> tell me where this leaves the u.s. in terms of syria, in terms of mediating things between saudi arabia and iran. we have already seen the russian foreign minister sort of stepping up to the plate and saying russia is prepared to play a role between iran and saudi arabia. what should the u.s. be doing about this? >> well, ali, the u.s. has to step in. i realize the relationship between saudi arabia is strained and the relationship with iran is kind of new as far as any kind of constructive discussion. however, if the united states
doesn't step in there are only two possible outcomes. someone else, russia for example, steps in and helps to mediate this crisis or no one stemsteps in to help mediate ths crisis and continues to escalate, violent incidents happen throughout region, passions get inflamed and all kinds of passion he that are irreversible that will have long time enduring effects. the u.s. has to step forward and play an active role in engaging and dampening the tensions and coming forward with a productive way forward on this crisis. >> raman ascard is a long time u.s. diplomat from 1997 to 2012 and a senior fellow. you'll hear when what he did and said that led to his execution, and later the new leader who has
cutting diplomatic and commercial ties with its regional rival, iran. that came after iranian protestors attacked the saudi embassy in iran. protesting against the execution of the shia cleric nimr al-nimr. mohammed jamjoom joins me from iraq. mohammed, saudi arabia accuses iraq of meddling in everybody's business at least everyone in the region. there are a lot who say saudi arabia does the same thing. >> absolutely ali, that's a very good point. it's kind of funny because the charge of meddling which has been used by saudi arabia against iran seems almost acquaint, considering how much tension have mounted up in the last 24, 48 hours. saudi arabia is just as vested
in the area as iran is. you speak to almost any average man or woman on the street they'll tell you they believe a lot of problems in the middle east stem from the fact that saudi arabia and iran are involved in the seeming unearnedding proxunendingproxy . one of the main reasons for that is, major faction he are backed by either saudi arabia or iran. saudi arabia backs as many people they're interested in groups whether they be religious groups whether they be armed groups in the region as is iran, and that is something they are known for throughout the region and the world, ali. >> mohammed, this cleric who was executed along with other what they call terrorists in saudi arabia, saudis view of this, he lived in saudi arabia, he was under saudi authority.
what did they accuse him of and why did they execute him? >> they excused him of trying destabilize the monarchy in saudi arabia. the reason for that in 2011 when the arab spring began you did have protests erupting in the predominantly shia province, oil rich province, closer to iran than other parts of the country. the cleric who was executed at times called for even seceding, from the rest of saudi arabia, called for the expansion of rights. he was a very well-known prominent dissident in saudi arabia. and you know that's something that's not receive accepted in i arabia. he crossed numerous lines in saudi arabia in the eastern province and because of that the saudi arabian regime thought he was breaking allegiance with king abdalla the late king and then they charged hip with
actually trying to destabilize the country and getting close to foreign influencers meaning iran. he was put on trial and sentenced to death, even though he was extente sentenced to dean 2014, that he should not be executed yet went ahead and executed him knowing full well it would cause the outcry that it ultimately did. ali. >> characterize this almost obsession that saudi arabia and iran have with one another. >> yes, this is something that goes way back. this isn't just something that's resulted over ththat'serupted of years. they see each other a exenls exl
threat. of course saudi arabia is the sunni superpower in the region and because of that both countries for decades now have been vying for regional dominance. backing the groups they want to back, trying to get their ideologies into different countries. trying to back the regimes that side with them. because of that it's only gotten more tense in the past few decades but there have been a lot of things that have happened in the past year that made it worse. one is yemen, saudi arabia was trying to stem the influence of iran. they constantly accused iran of backing yemen, because of that saudi arabia got dragged into the conflict in yemen, that's really a proxy war. again, yemen, the classic proxy war between saudi arabia and iran.
syria where the war grinds on and on and on, iran back president bashar al-assad and saudis backing the rebels. it seems as if the conflict in yemen and the conflict in syria there's no way there's going to be any kind of negotiated truce any time soon. >> mohammed jamjoom. thanks. coming up why that country could be america or one of america's biggest rivals.
are aggressively pushing their own agenda in the middle east. the old politics of working behind the scenes may be a thing of the past. saudi arabia's execution of a prominent muslim cleric, a shia clearic has ignited a diplomatic break with the iranians, one thing is clear, saudi arabia has under the stakes in a region that has become increasingly volatile. stephen sesh, executive vice president of arab gulf states in washington, funded by saudi arabia and united arab emirates. i should tell the audience you were the former u.s. ambassador to yemen. i want to ask you, what happens, why now have we seen this break in diplomatic relations between saudi and iran? was it really about these protests or is there something more to it? >> well, i think ali, i think the break itself is probably a
direct result of the iranian allowance if you will if the mobs to enter the saudi embassy in tehran. this was all triggered by what the saudis had done and it was not a surprise to anyone to see the response it engendered on the part of the iranians or the iranian government. the the unrest this has caused. >> they have under the executions, in fact 151 people have been executed 50 saudis from january to november, not including the 47 that we're talking about here. what's going on in saudi arabia? this new so-called muscular stance, normally saudi arabia last been a place that operates as mohammed jamjoom said behind closed doors with its partners. why this public display of strength? >> i think what we've seen since king salman took power this past
year and his son mohammed ben salman became defense minister, this is very significant and speaks to a deep seeded insecurity or a concern about internal security in saudi arabia. thus i think constant drum beat of executions and these executions themselves are very much designed to send a strong message to both the extremist sunni population as well as those shiites who have designs on destabilizing saudi arabia that none of that wrl b will be tolerated. >> king salman whether he was in the united states, said he was not in favor of the iranian nuclear deal. how has this nuclear accord with iran played into the saudi includes?
calculus? >> the loyalty to them, the u.s. is tilting towards iran in an effort to bring iran into the international community make it a good citizen again at the expense of our gulf allies. and that is i 30 the underlying anxiety or the accord itself on balance of i think has seen a positive. but what it suggests about the united states continued ability to work closely and guarantee the security of the gulf states is probably the biggest anxiety the biggest suspicion that our gulf allies bear at the moment. >> that negotiation or in the matters to do with syria russia has played a key role, it is an ally of the syrian a&m or the iranian regime. it is said that it is prepared to step in as a broker between syria and iran.
>> i don't think there'sfully chance russia will be accepted by the saudis as an media. intermediary. but the mess they've gotten themselves into in syria, the saudis may say, why don't you clean up your mess over there before the situation in iran over there. >> how does the united states play this? the united states and the saudis have generally operated in back channels. it doesn't tend to be a very public relationship. >> that's generally true and i think the saudis preference is to do these kind of conversations in private. they don't like any kind of finger-wagging that may come from washington, so we don't tend to do these public displays of unhappiness or dismay with the saudis. it is at our only peril if you don't make it clear that we have fundamental differences with a
close friend. it is the responsibility of a close friend to speak candidly with each other. i would hope that within the next 48 hours secretary of state john kerry will get on a plane to riyadh and speak about this, having broken ties with iran i don't know how they restore that. how do you get back on the table and say things are better or at least good enough so we can exchange ambassadors again, to see even as adversaries but someone who deserves that kind of respect, which is essential to get rid of unstable conditions in the region at the moment. >> ambassador stephen sesh the executive vice president of the arab gulf states institute. hostilities between saudi arabia and iran carry real risks for the middle east, the two are waging proxy wars.
despite the american public's misgivings about u.s. involvement in the middle east american leadership is needed to media thte the conflict between these rivals. america can play a constructive role, talk of new assassination he could undermine that but when the u.s. sits idly by, only increases the rash acts biour allies in the region lie saudi arabia. that's our show today. i'm ali velshi. the news continues here on al jazeera america.
>> the united nations has never accepted responsibility for this. >> an ali velshi on target special: >> on "america tonight": why they run. children with autism and the impulses that can lead them to bottle toward danger. but first the refugee crisis in europe and the big issue now on the forefront: unaccompanied miles an hour. >> do yominors. >> do you think about your family? >> yes. >> does your family know where you are? >> no. >> sheila macvicar on athe road ahead for refugees. good evening and thank you for